The Journey to Net Zero

Following on from our article on Climate Change and the Town Planning System, we’re looking at the global initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change, known as the Journey to Net Zero, which aims to achieve a state where the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere is equal to the amount absorbed. In the field of town planning, this initiative has important implications for the design and development of new buildings, infrastructure, and communities.

Planning authorities are increasingly emphasising sustainable development and reducing the carbon footprint of new projects through the adoption of low-carbon technologies, such as renewable energy sources, and sustainable design principles, such as natural light and ventilation.

The UK has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, which means that by this date, the country will no longer be contributing to global warming. This target was set by the UK government in 2019, following recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises the government on climate change issues.

The UK Government published its Net Zero Strategy in 2021, outlining how it expects to meet the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Carbon Budgets with illustrative scenarios for Net Zero in 2050. It committed to providing a public update every year on progress towards these targets.

The Government’s pathways largely align to the Climate Change Committee’s, with agreement on the key changes that are needed:

  • All UK electricity should come from low-carbon sources by 2035.
  • There should be no new sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030.
  • By 2035, all UK buildings should reach a decent level of insulation and energy efficiency and sales of gas boilers must be phased out.
  • Emissions from UK manufacturing and construction must fall by around 70% between 2019 and 2035.
  • A transformation is needed in the UK’s land, with tree planting, peatland restoration and bioenergy production scaling up rapidly, using land freed up from animal agriculture.

The town planning system is fundamental to supporting the changes needed.

To achieve net zero emissions, the UK will need to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. This will require a transformation of the UK’s economy, energy systems, and transport infrastructure, as well as changes in behaviour and lifestyle choices.

To support the Journey to Net Zero, various pieces of legislation, including the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Clean Growth Strategy 2017, have been introduced to create a legal framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable development.

Useful resources, such as the UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework which includes tools to help measure the carbon emissions of a building throughout its lifecycle, as well as a roadmap for achieving net zero carbon in new and existing buildings.

The Climate Change Committee monitor progress in reducing emissions, the latest report published in 2022. Interestingly Emissions in 2020 decreased 13% since 2019, compared to an average fall of 2% per year in the previous ten years (see below figure taken from the Climate Change Committee’s report to Parliament, Progress in reducing climate change (June 2022)), due to the pandemic affecting travel and demand. There was an increase in buildings emissions due to increased home-working.  A provisional estimate of 2021 emissions is 4% above 2020 levels, but remaining 10% below 2019 levels. There has been only a partial rebound in emissions, with aviation emissions remaining particularly low. It is unclear what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be.  However we know that the journey to net zero is relatively short in terms of timeframe and more needs to be done for the UK to realise the net zero commitment.

The UK town planning system can play a crucial role in achieving the country’s net-zero targets by 2050. Here are some ways that town planning can help:

  • Encouraging sustainable transport: Town planning can promote and encourage sustainable transport options such as walking, cycling, and public transportation. As well as promoting a shift towards electric vehicles.  This can be achieved by creating cycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets, as well as investing in public transport infrastructure and ensuring scheme incorporate vehicle charging points.
  • Promoting energy-efficient buildings: Town planning can promote energy-efficient building standards, such as requiring new buildings to meet minimum energy performance standards and support retrofitting existing buildings with energy-saving measures, such as green roofs, solar panels, and passive heating and cooling systems.
  • Increasing renewable energy production: Town planning can identify suitable locations for renewable energy installations, such as wind turbines and solar panels, and create policies that promote their development.
  • Promoting green infrastructure: Town planning can promote the development of green spaces and green infrastructure, such as urban forests and green roofs, which can help improve air quality and promote biodiversity. Take a look at our recent article on the Green Infrastructure Framework.
  • Reducing waste and promoting circular economy: Town planning can support waste reduction and the transition to a circular economy by designing areas for waste reduction, reuse, and recycling.
  • Climate-resilient infrastructure: Town planning can ensure that infrastructure is designed to withstand the impacts of climate change, such as flooding and extreme weather events.
  • Promote carbon capture and storage: This involves capturing emissions from industrial processes and power plants and storing them underground.

In summary, the Journey to Net Zero is a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the effects of climate change. Town planning is crucial in achieving this goal by promoting sustainable development and reducing the carbon footprint of new projects. Understanding the legislative framework and available resources is essential for developers, architects, and planners to support the Journey to Net Zero.

Overall, town planning can help to create more sustainable communities by amongst other things promoting sustainable transport, energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, green infrastructure, and waste reduction. By taking a holistic approach to town planning, the UK can move closer to achieving its net-zero targets.

Related Content

In our Collections page we have an Energy Collection which we hope will provide you with more information on this topic.

Renewable Energy Procurement & Carbon Offsetting Guidance for Net Zero Carbon Buildings – This guidance provides clarity for the property and construction industry on the procurement of high-quality renewable energy and carbon offsets for net zero buildings and organisations in the UK.

Readers are encouraged to stay up-to-date with the development of the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard via this website:

Journey to Net Zero